The first part of the race is done in training shoes, so you have to carry skis and boots on your back until you get up to the snow, a trek which took us 1 hour 24 mins. The crowd cheered us on through the street of Zermatt, and then it was out into the countryside and the gathering dark.
In the dusk we could make out the silhouette of the lower flank of the Matterhorn to our left as we made our way up towards Stafel along the stony path. Little by little we gathered speed (we’d agreed not to start too fast, which can be fatal in a long event like this) and before we knew it we were near the head of the group. We stayed together well, something we’d learned was hard in races through previous experience, and were in good shape as we reached the snow. Off with the trainers, on with ski boots and finally it was time to start the rhythm we’ve grown so used to when skinning on skis. We’d got the waxing just right (yes, we wax skins for better glide) and started overtaking teams ahead. This wasn’t as easy as it sounds because there was only one good track in the snow. The overtaking one had barely been used, so at every step our skis sunk in more than usual, slowing us down. Still, we made it past a few teams and then settled in with a group ahead that were going at the same pace as us.
Our next deadline loomed: a 3 hour cut off at Shönbiel. Would we make it? Never having been on the route before the only thing I could think was if we don’t make it, there will be a heck of a lot of other teams that won’t make it! Schönbiel is 1000m above the start in Zermatt, but the gradient is low and the distance long, and in the dark it was hard to get a feel for how high we’d come. We were wearing altimeter watches, but you can’t always rely on these as the readings can change with changes in air pressure. Still, it was with some relief that we reached the check point, where we had to rope up, at 2 hours 21 minutes, well within the cut-off.
After Schönbiel the slope starts to kick in and the pace dropped. Groups ahead were getting stuck on some of the trickier sections, which meant those behind had to wait: there wasn’t sufficient space on the narrow trail to overtake, so I took advantage of these pauses to lower my heart rate and eat some food. Once roped up, overtaking is much more difficult: there has to be 10 m of rope between each team member, so each team is a good 20m long. There were times when we had 3 teams abreast with ropes all overlapping, and the potential for it to all turn into a horrible load of knotted spaghetti is, well, rather high! Thankfully we avoided rope tangles-ville for the most part, and little by little moved on upwards to our initial goal: Tête Blanche. I’d put my insulation layer on at Shönbiel and got my hat ready, and now it was a good job I had done this: the wind was kicking in with violent gusts, carrying spindrift and sometimes small chunks of ice with it, giving us quite a blasting. A crescent moon peeked out from the clouds every now and again, giving an ethereal glow to the mountains around us, quite something to experience.
Then Yves’ skins started to slip on the harder snow. This results in lots of wasted energy, an increased potential for accidents, and typically quite a lot of blue language! Like a fisherman I pulled him up on the rope, and he decided it was time for ‘couteaux’ – ski crampons which attach behind the toe of the binding, helping to grip on hard snow. Jimmy and I were still ok as long as we pushed hard on our poles, so decided against doing the same.
Onwards and upwards seemingly endlessly in the dark, every now and again overtaking or being overtaken and having to pay close attention to the rope to avoid tangles. Then the wind really started to kick in, gusting us off balance on numerous occasions. It was getting hard to stay upright, and we quickly donned our final layers and thick gloves as we knew that once at the top there would be no way of doing this – the wind would make it impossible. The slope seemed relentless, but finally we spied the glow of the lights at the check point at the top, which spurred us on. At the checkpoint it was time to convert to downhill mode – taking off skins and making sure we stored them inside our clothes to keep the glue warm enough to work when we next needed them. It wasn’t the smoothest of transitions as the wind and cold made it hard to keep hold of everything, but we made it in the end and set out on the roped up descent.
The track was narrow and in the dark we had a couple of misadventures into deeper soft snow, one of which stopped Jimmy in his tracks and popped him out of his bindings. We carried on down slowly and cautiously, and every now and again a gust of wind would nearly blow us off our feet and stir up such a maelstrom of spindrift we couldn’t see a thing. We paused and waited for these to pass, and finally made it down to the point where we once again had to convert into uphill mode for the trek up to Col de Bertol. The Cabane de Bertol looked surreal in the dark, like a UFO all lit up hovering above the pass. Once more into downhill mode, a welcome cup of warm tea from the check point commander, and then onto the tricky descent to Arolla. This is a steep descent and the snow at this time of year is difficult to ski, so we took it steady. Jimmy was going slower than Yves and I, so I took rearguard position behind him to make sure we kept together. Lower down there were plenty of rocks hiding, and at one point in the dark I saw sparks fly from Yves’ edges as he skimmed one.
Finally down in Arolla and ready for some grub and a warm drink, we took our skis off and headed for the food station. Although it was 3 am, Arolla was buzzing with activity. There were crowds of supporters, people coming to feed their teams, plus of course all the racers about to start the short course from Arolla to Verbier. Quite something. We got some food down us, mixed a batch of isotonic drink for the second part of the course and prepared to set out on the next big climb. So far we hadn’t gone fast, but we’d made good progress with energy to spare for what would be an equally tough section ahead.
I took the lead for the climb up to Riedmatten, but just as we were heading on up the slope I heard an announcement over the loudspeakers: they were cancelling both the short race and our race!!! Agh! Everyone was to head back to the big tent for further information. We chatted with some soldiers up on the course, and they received information that the avalanche danger was just too high further along the course so they had to stop the race. What a shame. Still, better safe than sorry, and we’re all very thankful that the army took the difficult decision they had to take. During the night the temperatures lower down the course hadn’t dropped low enough for the snow to refreeze due to the Foehn wind and cloud cover not dissipating, and this was causing too much instability in a still significant snow pack. It had hardly stopped snowing for the 3 weeks prior to the race, and for it to warm up so suddenly, well, that’s a recipe for avalanches…
So it was with a tinge of regret mixed with total understanding that we headed down to the tent to get warm and have a bite to eat. It was 4 am and the army would now have 2300 people stuck in Arolla… They would need to transport everyone to Verbier, and we imagined that we’d actually have got to Verbier more quickly on skis than by the 50 buses they needed for this mammoth task. Thankfully, as you might expect, the organisation by the army was superb, and we were lucky enough to get on one of the first buses. We arrived in Verbier around 9am, and around an hour later were finally reunited with our loved ones. What an experience, what atmosphere, and what incredible organisation – hats off to the Swiss Army for such a smooth event in such challenging conditions. I’m sure we’ll be back!
If you’d like to see some TV coverage with a summary of the race and the conditions up top, go to http://www.canal9.ch/television-valaisanne/emissions/la-patrouille-des-glaciers.html (French only)